On a soggy, yet historic day on the streets of Drammen, Norway, Kikkan Randall claimed the first crystal globe for an overall World Cup title when she placed 11th in the classic sprint.
And while Randall may have claimed the biggest hardware, she wasn’t the only bright spot for the US amidst the rain and wet snow.
All told four Americans qualified for the heats in one of the World Cup circuit’s most competitive events. With Norway gaining extra start rights as part of the nation’s group, and that country’s consistent strength, just cracking the top-30 is an accomplishment.
Sadie Bjornsen joined Randall in the heats, qualifying in 16th to earn her first World Cup sprint points.
On the men’s side both Andy Newell and Simi Hamilton moved through, with Newell reaching the final for the first time this year, and Hamilton, as the first man on the outside of the ultimate round, placing a career-best 7th.
“To have four athletes qualify in Drammen in this sprint is a huge day for us,” US Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover told FasterSkier. “We have certainly never had as great a result in this race.”
The highlight of course was Randall, who has wowed all season long, raising both her distance skiing and classic sprinting to a new level and establishing herself as arguably the top skate sprinter in the world.
“We are super excited,” Grover said of Randall’s accomplishment. “An incredible season—almost every day has been kind of an historic day for us.”
While one sprint remains on the schedule, another city sprint in Stockholm on March 14th, Randall’s 11th, coupled with Natalia Matveeva (RUS) failing to make it out of the quarters, and Maiken Caspersen Falla unable to do better than 4th, the American is uncatchable.
“It hasn’t really sunk in yet, but I’m pretty excited,” Randall wrote to FasterSkier in an email. “Winning the sprint title was my biggest goal of the season, so to have officially done it now is a great feeling.”
The clinching moment may not have come exactly as she planned however.
According to Randall, she was pushed by eventual silver medalist on the day Astrid Jacobson (NOR) when the two women both went for the same track. This left Randall off the back.
She pushed hard over the high point to close the gap, but disaster struck on the descent.
“I was trying to be in a real low tuck and make some ground back when I think my wax may have caught and I had to jump sideways to catch my balance,” Randall explained.
The force of the movement ripped her binding out of her ski, and she fell hard.
The crash came on a blind part of the course, with no television coverage, so the next image that most spectators had was of Randall scootering along on one ski, carrying the broken one along with her.
Finally, 200 meters from the finish, she received a new board, and pushed hard to the line.
At that point, Randall already knew she had clinched the Sprint Cup by reaching the semis, but after making the finals the weekend before in the Lahti classic sprint, she was disappointed to end her day early.
A long gradual homestretch into a steep pitch at the end made for a challenging end to the race, but Randall felt the course suited her well.
“I felt strong in the finish in the quarters and just wish I could have skied it [the final hill] competitively in the semis with the pack,” she said.
Men Place Two in Top-7
The men’s squad may not have been locking up season-long titles, but both Newell and Hamilton hit high points on the season.
Newell, who reached the podium in Drammen in 2010, and has always skied well there, looked strong and relaxed in both the quarterfinals and semis after qualifying 12th.
Despite the slow conditions and tough climb to the finish, Newell and a number of skiers from other countries opted to double pole qualification.
According to Grover, Newell was one of the few, if not the only one, to advance on skate gear.
Grover told FasterSkier that klister was feeling slow and draggy in testing, but the rest of the US team ended up with great skis in qualification.
“The course just ended up getting too chewed up so it made it hard to get solid pole plants even with big baskets so double poling definitely wasn’t faster,” Newell wrote in an email to FasterSkier.
In the quarters he switched to classic and took over the lead halfway through, holding that position to the final meters, when a hard-charging Nikolay Morilov (RUS) came by.
But Newell held off Gleb Retivykh (RUS) to advance automatically.
In the semis, Newell and Canadian Len Valjas gapped the field and advanced easily to the final.
“My strategy here was to try and relax up the first hill and make sure I was in a good position to get a good draft on the downhill,” Newell wrote. “We had some fast skis so it made it easy to get around people on the downhill and then I just tried to put my head down and hammer some double pole.”
The course slowed down dramatically throughout the day and Newell said that despite new snow falling they continued to race on klister.
He avoided adding additional kick between rounds to keep his edge on the speed side, but in hindsight would have liked a bit more grip at the end of the final.
Eventual winner Eirik Brandsdal (NOR), Valjas, who ultimately placed second, and Paal Golberg, broke away in the final, creating a large gap.
“I was really surprised that the pace was so fast from the start but I tried not to panic knowing I could probably catch back up on the downhills and flats,” Newell said, but with the new snow falling and conditions changing it was just too much to make up.”
Newell lost out in the battle of the second three skiers of the final, placing sixth.
Despite qualifying regularly, Newell has struggled to get out of the quarterfinals this year. The Drammen race was just the second time he had advance out of the first round.
“He skied great all day,” Grover said of Newell, adding that he didn’t think there was any specific reason for the success.
Grover did say he feels Newell’s fitness is at a high point, and that it was only a crash in Lahti that kept him from advancing out of the quarters there.
The result was more than just a confidence booster for Newell. Only the top-50 skiers in the world start World Cup Finals, and Newell was on the bubble. His result moves him into a relatively secure position with just the Holmenkollen 50k remaining to be scored.
“I was pretty relaxed out there today because I know in the past this has been a good venue for me,” Newell said. “But at the same time I really needed to score some points to make World Cup Finals so I was really focused.”
While Newell was looking to climb back into the finals, teammate Simi Hamilton was out to reach that level for the first time.
He came up short, but just slightly.
Hamilton, who was set back by extended illness in the first World Cup period and then suffered a series of near-misses in qualification, finally broke through in a big way.
After qualifying solidly in 18th, Hamilton just beat out veteran Nikita Kriukov (RUS) at the line for the final spot in the semis.
“I really wanted to get into a good position and stay loose on the climb, and then hammer the 2nd part of the course,” Hamilton wrote to FasterSkier in an email. “A lot of people come undone in the last 300 meters of that course, so I knew that if I stayed relaxed and light I’d have a good chance of skiing more heats.”
The semifinal did not play out quite as well. After a slow start, Hamilton settled in patiently, but Nikolay Morilov (RUS) forced him into a slower track on the descent, and Hamilton said he lost valuable momentum.
While Valjas and Newell were clear ahead, Hamilton was able to get through traffic and make a late charge on the last hill. He skied away from the rest of the heat to take third, but did not have the time to advance as a lucky loser.
“I was really psyched with third in that heat, but it was for sure frustrating to be so close to skiing my first World Cup final, Hamilton said.
Grover was impressed with Hamilton’s race, and his ability to stay positive and focused despite the setbacks and disappointments throughout the season.
“I think he did a really good job keeping his head up and it is paying off right now,” Grover said. “He is in great shape and looks fantastic out there skiing.”
Hamilton is not in the top-50 on the world ranking list, so will not be racing World Cup Finals, but his season will continue back in the US.
“I’m for sure feeling like the season is really starting to come together,” he said. “It is just my luck to have that feeling at the very end of the World Cup season, but I’m psyched for a few more domestic races on the docket.”
He added that this first year racing the full World Cup has only served to motivate him, and he is already looking forward to the training season.
Bjornsen Earns First World Cup Points
In a good sign for US skiing, while the veteran Randall was wrapping up her overall title, the next generation was also turning in impressive results.
The 22-year-old Bjornsen finished in 27th after qualifying 16th, earning her first four World Cup points.
“I was just so excited,” Bjornsen wrote in an email. “I have been feeling good for a couple weeks now, so I was hoping that when I finally got the chance to start, I could do it.”
Like Hamilton, Bjornsen has had a number of near misses of late
She had made it within four places of the points on four occasions this year, and told FasterSkier that she had been joking that she would finally breakthrough in her last World Cup of the season—which is exactly what happened.
In the quarterfinals, Bjornsen got tangled with Norwegian Ingvild Flugstad early, and the pair was quickly off the back.
“I do think we managed to gain on the group but by the time we got our skis pointed back forward and untangled we were a ways from catching back,” Bjornsen said.
Flugstad ended up winning the race for fifth in the heat.
Heading into the weekend, Bjornsen was expecting a city sprint akin to Dusseldorf, Milan or Moscow—short and fast. She was pleasantly surprised at the challenging Drammen course, saying “When I saw the hill I literally did flips inside. I was so excited!! By adding that hill in, they make it more like a sprint, so much more exciting.”
Before today, Bjornsen had the somewhat unique experience of earning her first World Cup podium before her first point.
She teamed with Randall in Dusseldorf to take second in the team sprint there.
“I think everyone is just feeding on the success of others, Bjornsen said of the continuing run of impressive North American results. “I feel like each weekend we somehow make some new history. Honestly, its so exciting.”
Despite the medal in Dusseldorf, however, the World Cup rookie had been feeling like she wasn’t contributing to that continued success as much as she would have liked.
“I have been struggling this year, knowing I was a part of it, but also just waiting for my own breakthrough to add to the group,” Bjornsen said. “The group is so wonderful though—continuously encouraging me and reminding me I am so close. I have to say, it feels nice to finally feel like I have added to the momentum today.”
She also said that after racing for the US at the U23/World Junior Championships in Turkey, she has a strong appreciation of how the World Cup success is trickling down.
“It really is opening eyes and getting the younger generation excited,” Bjornsen said.
Matt Voisin contribute reporting.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.